Why are There So Many Phone Stores?

Downtown meets Digital. What is the future here?

Stock Alamy photo of TMobile, Verizon and AT&T stores in Jackson Heights, Queens, NY in Sept. 2016
Why are there so many Phone Stores? Photo : Alamy, Jackson Heights, NY, Sept. 2016

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I was visiting in my hometown and noticed that many mom-and- pop stores were closing. But, there seemed to be a lot of phone stores springing up, both the big guys and small shops that do phone repairs. I never go to these places and I renew my phone contract like once every three years. So why are there so many of them? Raven, New York.

Dear Raven: Labor Day weekend is a great time to ponder this since traditionally there were  Main Street parades and Labor Day sales. But, in  your hometown, like so many others, things are not the same. It’s not surprising that there’s a phone store now on every corner- along with a pizza joint. Statista estimates there will be 79 billion dollars in U.S. phones sales in 2021 but  ‘only’, 46.4 billion dollars in pizza sales. 

That said, phone stores are a relatively new concept. Before telco deregulation in the nineteen eighties, you had to lease ‘the instrument’ (a phone) and it was delivered by a technician who hard-wired it to the copper cable network. The Western Union backstory: non-Bell equipment could damage the network. 

Grab for Retail Space

With the advancement of fiber optics and wall jacks, consumers could plug in their own phones. But, it was really the growing market for cell service after 2000 that made retail explode. Now, instead of one or two phones per household, each person in the household (kids too!) wanted one.

That was before Internet commerce took off so it began the grab for good retail space. A first-class building  and choice location helped build consumer confidence, show and tell the product, and lock-in contracts. Other companies with brand new technology did the same- think Gateway Computer, Dell, and most recently Microsoft. With at least four major carrier telco choices (AT&T/Verizon/TMobile/Sprint) there was a store for each corner and customer.

The small stores you mention- they grew to serve a different need. Even today they are visited if you go month- to- month,  pay cash, or need repairs. They often resell access from the major carriers at a reduced cost. And, for many customers, the long-term contracts are complex, so it’s an opportunity to explain them better. 

But retailing evolves: In this decade the Gateway and Dell stores have closed. Earlier types of retail outlets, say banks, are downsizing into tiny ATMS,  and automobile dealerships are shrinking in number and size. It’s likely that phone stores will go this way, leaving new options for your hometown!

In Store, For How Long?

That said, about 63% of U.S. “full service” phone sales are still made in store, but if you follow this JD Power report, phone and online sales channels experienced their largest year -over- year growth. People who purchase in the phone store first engage in browsing online, using their old phone of course! By the time they visit the phone store they have shopped their new product and mainly want to hold and feel it. 

So, expect a growing interplay between digital and downtown. Forrester Research reported two years ago (cited in Forbes) that 53% of all purchase decisions are digitally influenced. Now, because the Covid pandemic forced stores (like Verizon, AT&T, etc. to close) consumers experienced the convenience of online purchasing online. Forrester now predicts that online shopping will grow to 27% of overall retail sales by 2023, from around ~18 percent today.

As a result of shopping online, in-store shoppers have different expectations: they want detailed product information, ratings and reviews, and access to the best price. In some markets you now need a phone to enter the store, and in other outlets, like an Amazon store, using the phone brings you the best specials and check out.  Unless the retail phone stores adapt, say to offer more in-person instruction like Apple does, and give choices for the sustainable recycling of trade-in phones, and present a more personalized experience, like Nike, it’s hard to imagine that they will thrive. Happy Labor Day as we figure out this next economy!

Home Schooling and Provisional Phones

All parents need to home-school when it comes to smartphones and tweens!

A mock-up of a 'certificate of completion' or diploma for parents who homeschooled through the pandemic.
Home schooling for parents is never done when it comes to provisional phones and tween learning.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am thinking of home schooling my daughter this Fall and wonder if home schooled kids need phones. She is entering eighth grade. I feel constant pressure from her and other parents to get a smartphone. If we home school for a year or two I can postpone the decision and she will be older. And, it will keep me from having to deal with the other parents and tweens who have smartphones.  Libby, Oakland

Dear Libby: Not all parents will choose home schooling, but I think that all parents must home school when it comes to phones.  You are certainly hopping on a trend. Many parents, particularly in California, are deliberating whether to return to the in-person classroom this Fall. The pluses are that the home schooling curriculum can be customized to the student, the classroom can be anywhere, and parents have more control. This includes control over digital devices. 

That said, I hope you have reasons beyond the smartphone for wanting to home school this Fall. Most curriculums are now online and the materials will be digital: podcasts, videos, drills, exams, and so forth.  Homeschooling might actually increase your daughter’s screen time albeit, on a laptop computer or iPad. 

The Provisional Phone:

You sound like a thoughtful parent, so you might consider using the new school year to get your daughter up and running with a provisional phone. In previous posts, I have referred to the provisional phone as the starter-kit. You could use a device with gray scale or fewer features, but that does not obviate the need to school at home, when it comes to digital education.

There’s an analogy from the transportation field. Parents don’t hand over the keys to the family car when their child on their fifteenth birtday. Instead, the parent and child embark on a series of steps. First, there is classroom (or video) training with those scary crash pictures. Next comes driving with a parent or instructor, then a written test with road rules, and finally, a road test with the DMV.  For at least six months to a year, future drivers operate with a learner’s permit. 

Rather than shield your daughter from the responsibilities of using a phone, you could use the school year to introduce it “provisionally.” At home you will provide the instruction and training, but the in-person classroom will provide the challenges and real-world context.

Context Counts when Learning:

Here is where context counts: at the in-person school, tweens will encounter peers that use text and social media to mock and bully. The lesson: stay clear of them, and do not return like with like. Then there is instruction on encountering porn and salacious content. For daughters, there is an instructional module on female body image and understanding how these pictures are often altered. These lessons, and more, become salient when your tween navigates them with peers.

I would wish for you, and all parents with young students, that this first phone, the provisional phone, opens up family discussions. The true learning must begin at home, even when kids take the phones to the physical school.  I would also wish, perhaps demand, that my school librarian and teachers offer a class in digital literacy for phone beginners. Sometimes the postings I see on Instagram from teachers suggest a laissez-fair attitude that I do not agree with, and earlier this summer, parents wrote about conflicts when pod teachers allowed students to use their phones during breaks.

Home Schooling No Matter What!

If keeping the phone out of your daughter’s hands for a few more years is the primary reason you are pursuing the home schooling path, then I think you should be more upfront.  Realize that this constant struggle with digital media will be with you as a parent, no matter which route you choose. And, whether you choose to home school or go back to the in-person classroom, the one curriculum you need to teach from home will be about the provisional phone.

Can Emojis Make Me Seem Empathetic?

Will an emoji improve my relationship? Or spice it up?!

A banner ad that says pump up your sexting with emojis. It shows lips, a peach, and eggplant as possible emojis.
Will emojis make me seem empathetic (or more?) Credit: emojiguide.com

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Can emojis make me seem more empathetic? My girlfriend says I lack empathy and while I don’t think that is true, I see that I could easily sprinkle some emojis in my correspondence to her. I am not sure why she is asking me this but should I add some happy faces? It’s an easy fix!  Ryan, Sacramento

Dear Ryan:  Empathy is the buzz word these days, and it’s good to seek it wherever we can. Personally, the only emoji I wish for a big human ear with an X across it. This ‘EarX’ emoji would replace the need to shout on Zoom, “You are on Mute.”

But, to be serious, learned linguists and psychologists do think that emojis can improve written communications. Emojis can embed tone and intention and help substitute for the non-verbal cues and gestures for face-to-face communications. As you can see in the image, they can also do a lot more! But stay dubious, for there are lots of foibles and miscommunications in face-to-face meet ups too.

from the i-mode team:

Emojis were conceived alongside the Internet to clarify the written word, and  some would say, fill the empathy gap.  A Japanese  telecom team, assigned to a project called i-mode, observed that email recipients could not judge the context and intentions (for a fuller breakdown read this).  Team member Shigeta Kurita was graphically inspired  by manga and kanji. But, recall that the yellow smiley face, with two dots for eyes and a wide grin, had already become an universal symbol.

That was when Windows 95 launched. Since then emojis continue to sprout like a new language. Social media firms have been intent on marrying the emoji to convey emotion and empathy, just like you mentioned. Facebook experimented with them (circa 2012) because they hoped that users would be less angry and more compliant when friends asked them to remove photos or messages. Says a UCBerkeley psychology  professor advising Facebook’s emoticon team, ” The idea was to get people to be kinder and more polite to make for more compassionate communication.” 

A Verbal Shortcut

As emojis become an everyday auxiliary, my opinion is that we use them less for emotive means and more for speed. We add emojis to our texts and chat as they shorten the number of words to input. Emojis are a meta-language well suited for phones:  brevity counts and the emoji is a verbal shortcut. 

There seems little harm as you say in “sprinkling some emojis” through your text or chat to the girlfriend, but before you start using them remember that there is no emoji standard. Users in different countries and different cultures make different assumptions on their motivation and meaning. Using an emoji might not create that shared harmony you seek.

Furthermore, human empathy is endless, but emoji is not. In 2019 there were 2,823 symbols encoded by Unicode. If you are serious about this relationship, then ask her to comment on the emojis you choose, and specifically ask how they make her feel. Better yet, do this in person, not over chat or text! BTW, sending  fresh flowers, or cards or food always outshines emojis. 😀 😃 😄